An interview with Air Force Chief Commander Vladimir Mikhailov

Vladimir Sergeevich Mikhailov, Hero of Russia and Chief Commander of the Air Force, reveals some military secrets about aviation re-armament, named in President Putin’s address to parliament as a priority for Armed Forces modernization.

Question: Is there any information about the most likely cause of the Armavia A-320 passenger jet crash?

Vladimir Mikhailov: Bad weather was entirely to blame. That will be confirmed once we raise the flight recorders and look at their data. The captain did the right thing when he decided to turn back. The plane had to turn back.

Question: Many were surprised by the news bombshell you dropped on our neighbor, Ukraine, with the announcement that the Russian Air Force is pulling out of their pride and joy – the An-70 aircraft project – because the latest design changes have made it too heavy.

Vladimir Mikhailov: That is indeed the case.

Question: But if we’re to believe media reports, Russia has invested $4 billion in the An-70 project. Who shall answer for that now?

Vladimir Mikhailov: Some degree of risk is involved in designing any new hardware. And I don’t think it’s right to focus on “who shall answer for it.”

After taking up my present office, I started paying particularly close attention to R&D work on the An-70. I saw that there would be substantial technical difficulties in establishing regular production of the aircraft. I learned that the preliminary conclusion had been signed in violation of regulatory documents.

The aircraft had two flaws that should have precluded the signing of the preliminary conclusion. Yet it was signed. For the sake of maintaining friendship with Ukraine, apparently. But we shouldn’t play nice at the state’s expense – especially when this involves breaking aircraft construction rules.

Question: Russia exports the very latest aircraft, while keeping old ones for its own Armed Forces. As the Commander of the Air Force, don’t you find this frustrating?

Vladimir Mikhailov: Until now, funding for acquisition of new aircraft has been insufficient. In the late 1980s we were buying about 600 aircraft a year: in 1989, for example, we bought 647 new planes and helicopters. In 1992, we bought none at all.

Question: But the Yeltsin era is receding into the history books – people are seeking Putin’s successor these days. Yet the Air Force still can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Vladimir Mikhailov: The situation isn’t hopeless. After all, troop strength was greatly reduced after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but we still had plenty of planes. Yet now we are taking a different path.

Question: What kind of path?

Vladimir Mikhailov: We have retained all the scientific resources required for aircraft-building. And we’re using the revenue from aircraft exports to fund development of new hardware. Thus, since 2002 we have been working on a fifth-generation fighter, light, medium, and heavy transport planes, a training plane, and a helicopter. The training plane has been completed – the Yak-130. Tests of the Il-76MF heavy transport plane were completed in April 2005, and we have a conclusion saying that it should go into production. Besides, we are relying on upgrades. The Su-25SM, the Su-22M, the Su-27SM, the MiG-29SMT – all these aircraft now have new avionics.

Question: What does that mean?

Vladimir Mikhailov: Firstly, the cockpits are different; secondly, they are standardized. A pilot wouldn’t be able to tell which plane he is in, from looking at the cockpit alone. Well, these modernized aircraft will enable us to maintain our fleet until 2015, or even 2025. Meanwhile, we’ll be working on new models.

Question: Is it only a question of money?

Vladimir Mikhailov: And not all that much money. Last year, it cost us just over 3 billion rubles to overhaul 106 planes, 76 helicopters, 364 engines, and a range of other machinery. That’s four regiments of planes, counting only those serviced at our own maintenance facilities, plus three regiments of helicopters.

Question: The fifth-generation fighter seems to be Russia’s best hope in the air. It would keep us from falling behind the United States, enable us to win any air battle, and earn billions in export revenue. But recently you said that funding allocated for fifth-generation fighter R&D is being spent elsewhere – such as work on a new civil aircraft, the RRG.

Vladimir Mikhailov: That’s not exactly right. What I actually said was that Sukhoi Aviation would probably make faster progress on the fifth-generation fighter if it didn’t also have the RRG program.

We’re approaching the end of the second stage of work on the fifth-generation fighter. So I have no doubt that it will take off on schedule – that is, in 2007.

Question: So we’re making progress on the fifth-generation fighter. But will we create a new generation of our most fearsome weapon – strategic bombers?

Vladimir Mikhailov: Here in front of me is a model of the Tu-160 – the best, and the best-looking, aircraft in the world! The only problem is that it was designed in the 1970s, and its avionics are slightly obsolete. But those problems can be resolved by upgrades.

Question: Another source of hope for the Russian Air Foce is the Su-34, intended to replace the Su-24 frontline bomber. When will it be delivered?

Vladimir Mikhailov: We’ll receive the first two of those planes this year.

Question: What about the Ka-50 and Ka-52 helicopters? The Black Shark and the Alligator.

Vladimir Mikhailov: I’d agree that the Ka-52 isn’t a bad aircraft, in principle. But it has more flaws than the Mi-28, for example. So it’s not by chance that President Putin and all other authorities have approved the Mi-28 as the basic helicopter model for Army aviation. Meanwhile, the Ka-52 and the Ka-60, a modification of it, will be acquired in limited numbers, for uses such as special operations.

The decision to make the Mi-28 our basic helicopter is the right decision. The Kamov company’s helicopters will be exported and used for special purposes.

Air Force breakthrough set for 2007

Question: You’re now in charge of air defense as well as military aviation. So here’s a question for you as air defense chief: when will the Armed Forces take delivery of the S-400 air defense missile system?

Vladimir Mikhailov: We’ll receive the first regiment of the S-400 system this year. Another missile is being developed for it, and in general the outlook is good here. From the S-400, we’re planning to move on to aerospace defense, with missile systems used on space targets as well as air targets.

Question: Did you expect the new approach to fighting terrorism? In particular, what do you think of the order to shoot down planes that might have terrorists on board?

Vladimir Mikhailov: What new approach? That’s always been the approach. It may not have been spelled out in so many words, but given sufficient will and an understanding of the situation, a chief commander or commander could do what had to be done, and no one would blame them for it.